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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Of racial slurs and team names

By Tom Warhover
August 9, 2013 | 2:23 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

Slate magazine on Thursday announced it would no longer use the word “Redskins” to refer to the National Football League team from Washington, D.C.

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I’m inclined to agree. Each time I read of another publication drawing this particular line, I think the Missourian should, too. Washington Redskins today makes about as much sense as Edmonton Swastikas in 1941. (Yes, there was a women's hockey team by that name, in 1916.)

“Changing the way we talk is not political correctness run amok,” Slate’s David Plotz writes. “It reflects an admirable willingness to acknowledge others who once were barely visible to the dominant culture, and to recognize that something that may seem innocent to you may be painful to others. In public discourse, we no longer talk about groups based on their physical traits: No one would ever refer to Asians as yellow-skinned. This is why the majority of teams with Indian nicknames have dropped them over the past 40 years.”

The name debate, which has lasted for decades, isn’t going away. This spring, a bill was introduced in the House to cancel all federal trademarks with the term Redskins and prohibit future ones.

Plotz notes that Slate’s position isn’t likely to sway the single decision maker who matters: Dan Snyder, Washington’s owner. Slate has a national voice, but it is hardly the first name in sports journalism.

And the Missourian? Scrapping the name would have about as much chance of making a difference in the national debate as winning Wednesday’s Powerball drawing: 1 in 175 million.

So the only reason to ban Washington’s nickname would be if it were the right thing to do.

Slate’s Plotz says the history of the term suggests historic ambiguity – it didn’t begin as a slur, and the original team owner probably picked it for its associations with Indian bravery. The Kansas City Star’s public editor, Derek Donovan, isn’t as forgiving: “I remain unconvinced by every argument I’ve ever heard that the name is not a racial epithet, plain and simple.”

Yes, that from an editor at a newspaper that routinely refers to its NFL team as the Chiefs. Donovan distances the two mascot names because one uses the color of a person’s skin.

The question seems like a no-brainer to me. Which means it probably isn’t. One of the major advantages at the Missourian: Some of our reporters and editors are also master’s students who are required to do research projects. So I’ll put them to work before any policy is written. What questions would you have them find answers for?

Tom